Living with Style, People, Places & Spaces, The Newport Diary


The Tale of a Turkey

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“Swiss Village has been a part of everybody’s life in Newport,” the late owner recalls. “The Arthur Curtiss Jameses were so generous. In summers, when I was a little girl, you were allowed to drive through the farm on Sunday afternoons, very carefully, over the bridge and all around. You weren’t allowed to get out of the car, but you could watch them bringing the cows in to be milked, look at the chickens, goats and pigs.”

There is a lot of nostalgia attached to this farm, a charming bit of old Europe added in 1915 to one of the largest estates on Aquidneck Island. Even the scale of the buildings is slightly diminished, adding a touch of whimsy to the scene. The names of these miniature chalets sound as if they were taken from a child’s nursery rhyme — Piggery. Hennery. Nursery. Creamery. Dovecote.

But there is serious business going on here. Saved from development in 1999 by Dorrance “Dodo” Hamilton and a partner, Swiss Village is now the site of a groundbreaking effort to use the technology of cryogenics to help preserve endangered domestic breeds. Perhaps the most famous example…and the inspiration for this post…is the Narragansett turkey which goes back to the beginnings of our country. A native bird served at the first Thanksgiving, it was a mainstay of the early settlers’ diets but later fell out of favor because of its small size.  Around for 380 years this bird is now almost extinct. It is through the efforts of conservation groups like Swiss Village Foundation that DNA from the original Narragansett turkey is being preserved.

After two years of hard work and tutoring with Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine in Massachusetts , the program officially started in 2003  and now represents forty-five breed. Randall Lineback cattle, Tennessee Myotonic goats, Florida Cracker cattle and Hog Island sheep, among others, are breeds that are no longer economically viable for farmers and therefore are no longer widely bred. Just finding a farmer who still raises them — and is willing to share the DNA — involves a lot of detective work and trips to obscure places such as Petal, Mississippi, to knock on doors and develop a farmer’s trust. While unfamiliar to most Americans, the threat of extinction for such breeds is worrisome. In particular, these waning breeds carry invaluable and irreplaceable traits and genes related to the evolution of the breed, such as disease resistance and environmental adaptation traits like heat and drought tolerance.

Belted Galway cows add a picturesque note, reminding us that Swiss Village was first conceived to house Mr. Arthur Curtiss James’s prized cattle, moved in 1915 from his New Jersey farm.

The original stone buildings were built on ledge, and rainwater ran right through them. Surprisingly, they didn’t crumble, but serious remediation was necessary. Basically, a whole new building was built within each of the old buildings. Many of these new spaces became laboratories, operating rooms and living quarters for the farm staff.

So what began as a nostalgic journey is now a very successful operation for the preservation of heritage breeds. And just as importantly, forty-six acres in the heart of Newport’s environs have been left as open space which would otherwise have been a tragedy for the landscape of this island. Mr. Arthur Curtiss James would certainly have approved.

Irregular stone bollards, or guardrails, kept animals and carriages on the pebble roadway that winds throughout the farm.

So when you cut into that roasted bird this Thursday, remember that there is more to this story than meets the eye.

Have a delicious Thanksgiving with family and friends.

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4 thoughts on “The Tale of a Turkey

  1. Beautiful Creature!…. After seeing this picture and reading the fascinating account, not sure I can eat Turkey now, but Giving thanks is easy….for many things and in particular for your great personal website.

  2. Wonderful story, Bettie, and such a beautiful turkey. I love the farm; it looks very much like several stone farm compounds we have here in the Brandywine Valley, along with their Galway cows, as you probably recall from living in our area. We are both extremely fortunate to have such beautiful places to enjoy–I never take that for granted, and feel I have to pinch myself every time I do my little back roads driving excursions through this lovely hill and dale part of the country. Wishing you and yours a most lovely Thanksgiving Day.

  3. What a wonderful legacy left by Madame Hamilton. Her intelligence, responsibility and passion for preservation – combined with a vision that far exceeded the naysayers – has left a wonderful legacy for Newport. How fortunate the community was for having this cultural pioneer in their midst.

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